Rabat was about three and a half hours from Fes and Sefrou. It was the capital, and the Peace Corps office and U.S. embassy were there, so volunteers went there often. Rabat was also a pleasant place, urban, but not huge like Casablanca. It was fun. There were theaters, restaurants, big bookstores, historic sites, and, besides the volunteers and staff who lived in Rabat, there were always other volunteers passing through, and sometimes other friends, Moroccan and American. In 1968, there were direct flights to the U.S. from the airport in Salé, too, so most new Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Rabat.
CTM buses were plentiful, running virtually every hour on the hour, and cheap, and, because the windows opened, they did not have that awful, stale odor that buses in the States had. The train took longer and was more expensive. Volunteers made the trip all the time for Peace Corps business, or en route to destinations south and west. I drove the road many times in my Peace Corps jeep. And I even hitched a ride once or twice.
About halfway to Rabat was the town of Khemisset. For Morocco X volunteers, it has a special significance. We were housed nearby at Tiflet for a couple of weeks, while we waited to be picked up and taken to the CTs (centres de travaux), basically agricultural extension stations, where we were to be stationed. It was January, and cold. The Tiflet center was in the country, and there was nowhere to go. There was jubilation when, after a week or so, the showers were finally turned on.
But the true significance of Khemisset, for me anyway, was its location, not as the chef lieu for the Zemmour tribe, nor as a temporary step on the way to my assignment, but as a great food stop, known for kifta and brochettes, on the way between Rabat and Fes.
A line of stalls with charcoal grills served sandwiches. Seasoned with cumin and hot pepper, and filling a section of a round Moroccan bread, the skewered meat was terrific (though, it should go without saying, never as good as what I had in people’s homes.) Still, when one is on the road, a good truck stop is a special pleasure. I always stopped at the same shop, and bought food from the same guys, often enough that they recognized me, probably as the tall foreigner who spoke broken Arabic.
Leaving Fes for Rabat, the road descended through a hilly, terraced landscape.
After Khemisset, it crossed the Mamora forest, the largest cork oak forest in the world, and, from that point, the road was straight and flat where it crossed the Gharb. Today the Mamora Forest is under siege. At the limit of conditions where cork oaks can grow, overgrazing threatens the forest, from what I have read, and it remains to be seen whether efforts by the government will be enough to preserve it. Other cork oak forests, such as that near Chauen, where I spent some happy times mushroom hunting with my friend Gilles Narbonne and his family, are doing better.
In the summer, the coast announced itself with humidity. It is always a strange sensation to leave a dry hot area and to find oneself suddenly in a humid, coastal climate. I had this experience at Bandar Abbas in Iran and Dakar in Senegal, but it was a regular part of living in the interior of Morocco. And mild as the coastal climate was, I always preferred the hotter, drier weather of the interior.
I had a lot of experiences on the road from Fes to Rabat. Once I had to wait for a bus, so I spent the afternoon with a friend, lost track of time, and carelessly missed the bus. Unfortunately, I had already checked my unlocked suitcase, which contained, among other things, my passport. Since I was destined for a medical evacuation flight from Keneitra to the U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón, outside Madrid, I figured I was in real trouble. I decided to see if I could beat the bus to Rabat by hitchhiking. I got a ride right away, by a young guy whom I assumed was French. I explained who I was in my best French, and the driver introduced himself in excellent French, and after a few minutes of conversation it became clear that he was an American, and, not only that, but a graduate of the same college as myself, but a year later. There’s more to the story, including a visit to the so-called secret military base in the Gharb at Sidi Yahia, but the gist of it is that we beat the bus and I was able to get my bag down from the roof rack before the bus pulled out for Casablanca.
Another time, Dick Moench, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University was driving me to Rabat. I had been in Sefrou for the weekend (at the time I was staying in Rabat or Salé), and had fallen seriously ill. We kept putting off getting gas for the little Renault 4 Dick had, and ran out of gas before reaching Khemisset. It was raining and cold. I think it was January or February and poor Dick had to hitchhike in the rain to get a bidon of gas.
Back in Rabat, I was fortunate to be taken in by Diane and Jerry Ponasik, who had a house in the Casbah of the Oudaïya, and I stayed there a couple of weeks until I regained my health.
And finally there was a time when Gaylord Barr and myself were riding the bus into Rabat, and he had needed a toilet so badly he asked the driver to stop. He signaled the bus to go on, and so it did, leaving Gaylord frantically looking for trees to hide behind! He easily got a ride in to Rabat a bit later. Moroccans were always great about giving foreigners lifts.